Monday, September 29, 2008

I Need a Love to Make Me Happy

As I'm sure many others did, I went through college with the simplistic notion that Aristotle was the opposite of Plato. That idea is true to some extent, of course, but I'm fifty pages into On Rhetoric (my first Aristotle), and it's already obvious to me that Aristotle doesn't so much push against Plato as build off of him. He takes Plato's definition of rhetoric, for example--an art that is not an art, since it doesn't impart specific knowledge--but turns it around on itself and treats it as a good thing.

Likewise, he agrees with Plato on the meaning of life. Socrates takes it as a given that all men desire first and foremost to be happy (Euthydemus 278E), and if he posits virtue as the most important factor to happiness, he never doubts that happiness is the ultimate goal. Aristotle both expands and refines this concept:
Both to an individual privately and to all people generally there is one goal at which they aim in what they choose to do and in what they avoid. Summarily stated, this is happiness and its parts . . . Let happiness be defined as success combined with virtue, or as self-sufficiency in life, or as the pleasantest life accompanied with security, or as abundance of possessions and bodies, with the ability to defend and use these things. (On Rhetoric 1360B)
George A. Kennedy, who translated my copy of the book, suggests that Aristotle privileges the first definition of happiness there (“success combined with virtue”), and I've got no reason to doubt him. But I am more interested in the “parts” of happiness:
good birth, numerous friendships, worthy friendships, wealth, good children, numerous children, a good old age, as well as the virtues of the body (such as health, beauty, strength, physical stature, athletic prowess), reputation, honor, good luck, virtue. (1360B)
What strikes me about this catalogue of needs is how many of them are uncontrollable. Of these, only virtue is under the control of the individual (although friendships, wealth, health, and reputation have some element of controllability).

Thomas Aquinas famously combines Aristotle and the Bible to come up with his theology, and I have to wonder what he does with this portion of On Rhetoric. That's because I don't see any way to combine Aristotle's viewpoint with St. James'. Now, I've elsewhere made my peace with the Greek concept of happiness as the chief end of man, but it's the uncontrollability of happiness that sticks in my craw. James seems to claim willful, that is, controllable, happiness, opening his epistle with his famous exhortation to “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (1:2). The image is of a person forcing himself to be happy (or joyful--I never bought my youth group's distinction between happiness and joy).

The real reason for the discrepancy between Christian and Aristotelian thought on this matter comes down to one little compound word: “self-sufficiency.” If man is autonomous--if happiness indeed comes from being enough on his own--then of course the elements of that happiness are going to be beyond man's control. But James' happiness springs from the knowledge that man is not in fact sufficient unto himself. James is able to turn rocks into bread because he knows that his poor circumstances have a relational purpose, that they stem from his dependence upon God.

So Nathan--as the world's only Thomist Protestant (and the only reader of this blog), I'm sure you have the answer to my question. How does Aquinas reconcile these two disparate viewpoints?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Why Both Sides of the Abortion Debate Are Disingenuous

The panel question this week over at the Washington Post's “On Faith” blog is whether or not John McCain and Sarah Palin would be right to overturn Roe v. Wade. It's an uncomfortable question, for sure, probably the biggest and most emotional political issue of my lifetime--and it's often hard to get to any legitimate discussion about abortion because of the screaming going on on both sides.

Further, I'm not terribly convinced by either side. 95 percent of the abortion debate comes down to an unprovable philosophical conviction: At what point does life begin? Consensus cannot and will not be reached on this question because both sides have a point. The pro-life crowd (I will use the terms the group members themselves use, incidentally, rather than saying “anti-abortion” or “pro-abortion”) claims that life must in fact begin at conception because the zygote has a different genetic makeup from its parents. The pro-choice crowd counters that the zygote and the fetus are not self-sufficient--that is, they are wholly biologically dependent upon the mother in whom they reside.

Notice that these arguments are waged on totally different grounds; they have two different qualifications for determining when life begins. For this reason, the question underpinning abortion is philosophical rather than scientific. Pro-life activists can tell pro-choice activists that the fetus has a beating heart, but it won't do any good if the latter's definition of life involves self-sufficiency. Likewise, the pro-choice conviction that a genetically individual being is not technically alive because it is not self-sufficient sounds chilling to someone who is pro-life.

Now, the fact that the entire abortion debate rests in the difference between these two definitions of life gets obscured by rhetoric on each side. When I was in high school, there was an organization called “Rock for Life,” in which Christian rock fans got together and devised slogans like “Abortion Sucks” (because they use a vacuum to conduct the procedure--get it?) and to make t-shirts with pictures of aborted fetuses on them. I suspect RFL's tactics got a reaction from people—but I am reasonably sure that this reaction did not involve thinking through the issue and coming to an informed conclusion. Pro-life protesters tend to preach to the choir in this way, and the “Abortion Is Murder” school of debate does not, I think, win very many people over to their side.

If the pro-life camp relies way too much on emotionalism, pro-choice activists use a tactic that's flat-out disingenuous. We see it in full force in Gardner Calvin Taylor's response:
Government has a right to attack Roe v. Wade only when it guarantees that the fetus will have a quality education, adequate food and housing, quality healthcare, and a favorable community in which to advance. Anything short of this is infanticide in stages and wanton hypocrisy.
Well, yes, it's wrong that so many babies are born into families that do not want them and cannot take care of them; and it's wrong that society at large--either in the form of the government or in private or religious-based charities--does not step in and help out. But the difference between not having much chance for a good life and having no change--that is, having no opportunity to live at all--is literally infinite, and Taylor's response makes sense only if you already accept the pro-choice reasoning about self-sufficiency. I've always hated this particular argument--certainly when I considered myself pro-life, and even more now that I consider myself reluctantly pro-choice.

The other pro-choice argument I hate shows up in the comments section almost immediately. A user named “Tonio” (and, oh, how I hope it's legendary L.A. punk musician Tonio K.) claims that “The idea that overturning Roe v. Wade will magically do away with abortion is simply fantasy.” Of course, he's right, and I don't think many pro-life advocates would disagree with him. But outlawing murder didn't keep people from killing other people, and outlawing theft doesn't keep people from losing their car stereos. Society does not outlaw things because doing so makes those practices disappear; we outlaw things because we do not want to sanction what we consider immoral behavior. (For more on the inherent moralizing behind laws in a secular state, see my post on libertarianism.)

I do think there is a better solution to the problem of abortion, one that both the pro-life and pro-choice camps could and should get behind. So here's my three-step plan to improving the discourse around the unborn in this country:

1) Get rid of abstinence-only sex education. Study after study after study has proven this program to be ridiculously ineffective. Teen pregnancy rates actually increase in its wake. Here's the deal: Teenagers have been having sex out of wedlock almost since the day sex was invented, and other than a personal religious imperative, I don't think there's much convincing reason they shouldn't, not in the age of birth control. Let's teach teenagers how to have sex responsibly--how not to put out to cement a relationship, how not to have sex with people they don't love, how to think it over before they decide to go all the way, and how to use birth control every single time they have sex.

2) Make adoption a viable option. I think this is one thing that pro-life activists get right. The “crisis pregnancy centers” and hotlines across the country make it clear to pregnant teenagers that their pregnancy does not have to ruin their lives forever. But many women do not like the idea of having a child--biological bonding begins immediately, of course--and then having to give it away. To really make adoption a viable option, we will have to change American culture to the point where women who give their children up for adoption because they cannot or do not want to take care of them are considered heroes—because they are.

3) Promote the morning-after pill. I am not talking about RU-486 here, which actually is an abortion pill. The morning-after pill--marketed as “Plan B” or under other names--is a double dose of the normal birth-control pill, taken up to three days after unprotected sex, and it reduces pregnancies by 75 percent. It works on the same mechanism as the conventional birth-control pill, which is to say that it prevents an egg from being released rather than preventing a fertilized egg from being implanted (which would, of course, be abortion under a pro-life schema). One reason I distrust Sarah Palin is that Feminists for Life, an organization which she belongs to, ignores the science on this issue and calls birth-control pills “abortifacient”--an assertion which is demonstrably untrue. Birth-control pills, both conventional and emergency, could end abortion in this country.

But this is another area in which pro-life activists are, I think, often disingenuous. Feminists for Life, Rock for Life, and other Right to Life organizations oppose hormonal birth control and search for reasons to do so. You will hear them say that women who are on birth-control pills have a much greater likelihood of developing AIDS than women who are not. Well, of course they do--they're often having sex without condoms. You'll also hear about the negative health effects of hormonal birth control, which is another demonstrably false claim; women on birth control pills actually have lower incidences of cervical and ovarian cancer, fewer ectopic pregnancies, and, some evidence suggests, a decreased risk of breast cancer.

But many on the pro-life side—and particularly the visible and loud members of that crowd—are happy to twist data. And that's because, I think, that they're not really that concerned about abortion. If they were, I would think they'd be interested in effective sex education and in effective birth control. That they are not suggests that the issue is not abortion but sexual morality, an issue they are welcome to argue but that they should admit they are arguing.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

You've Been on This Shift Too Long

(You may have to live without part two of "The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet"; I'm not sure I'll ever get around to it.)

While doing research for a paper on R.E.M. and the New South a few years ago, I became interested in the relationship between the Old South, the New South, and the railroads, and reading Faulkner's third novel, Flags in the Dust (later edited and retitled Sartoris), has brought that concept back into my mind. Flags in the Dust, as you may have guessed, concerns the Sartoris clan, one of Faulkner's many Southern families who thrived before the war and is now dusty and rotting. John Sartoris, the paterfamalias, had a dream that the railroad would one day run through Jefferson, Mississippi, and bring a new prosperity to the area. It must have worked because his son runs a bank.

But prosperity and technology, as Faulkner fans know, are always double-edged swords. John Sartoris' dream does come true, but it comes more true than I suspect he'd hoped:
John Sartoris had once sat on this veranda and watched two trains emerge from the hills and traverse the valley into the hills again, with lights and smoke and bells and a noisy simulation of speed. But now his railway belonged to a syndicate and there were more than two trains on it, and they ran from Chicago to the Gulf, completing his dream, though John Sartoris himself slept these many years unawares.
That line to Chicago brings the accoutrements of modern life to Jefferson, it is true--and when the line goes into Alabama, it allows Birmingham (the birthplace of the modern South) to ship its coal and steel northward--but it also takes some piece of Mississippi back north, and when enough of these pieces are shipped away, Mississippi no longer exists the way it did for John and Bayard Sartoris. Such is modern life. I can't see a difference between I-85 in Georgia and I-95 in New Jersey--medians look the same the world over.

But let's not forget how important the railroad was for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Atlanta is the capitol of Georgia chiefly because it was a railroad hub during the 1850s and 1860s, and when General Sherman made his March to the Sea, his men were sure to pull up the rails. The railroads, then, so instrumental in the southern attempt to maintain an antebellum way of life, ended up killing off the Old South for good.

Of course, the railroad as an abstract idea was not long for this world, either, as R.E.M. makes clear in their classic single "Driver 8":
The walls are built up stone by stone
The fields, divided one by one
And the train conductor says, "Take a break, driver 8
Driver 8, take a break
We've been on this shift too long

And the train conductor says
"Take a break, driver 8
Driver 8, take a break
We can reach our destination
It's still a ways away"

I saw a treehouse on the outskirts of the farm
The power lines have floaters so the airplanes won't get snagged
The bells are ringing through the town again
The children look up
All they hear is sky-blue bells ringing

And the train conductor says
"Take a break, driver 8
Driver 8, take a break
We can reach our destination
It's still a ways away"

A way to shield the hated heat
A way to put myself to sleep
A way to shield the hated heat
A way to put myself, my children sleep

He piloted this song in a plane like that one
She is selling faith on the Go Tell Crusade
Locomotive 8
Southern Crescent
Hear the bells ring again
The field to weed is looking thin

And the train conductor says
"Take a break, driver 8
Driver 8, take a break
We can reach our destination
It's still a ways away"
"Driver 8" is obtuse in the way that only early R.E.M. can be, but it also marks the point at which Michael Stipe moved from the sheer poststructural nonsense of Murmur and Reckoning into a genuine attempt at storytelling and social commentary. The song makes a point that I've not heard any scholar make--the railroad is a tragic hero, paving the path for its own destruction.

The song opens with a vision of the industrializing New South of the Reconstruction, with buildings popping up and even rural areas gaining more modern farming techniques. Our hero is the noble engineer of Locomotive 8, who flies through the landscape at what seem like impossible speeds, noticing only brief and hazy images of the world around him. (Driver 8's speed accounts for the opacity of Stipe's lyrics, and presumably also for the singer's opaque delivery, best demonstrated in the hysterical Hootie and the Blowfish cover, in which Darius Rucker gets nearly half of the lyrics wrong.) The engineer has a goal in mind, presumably (given the images of progress around him) the emergence of the South as an economic powerhouse and as a modern region, and he flies toward this goal at breakneck speed.

The images become more modern in the second verse. The engineer sees high-rise apartments in major metropolitan areas (treehouses, as it were, on the outskirts of town) and electric power running through every stop on his route. He even sees, in the bridge, air-conditioning, "a way to shield the hated heat." (And if you've ever lived without central air in Georgia in the summer, you understand exactly what "a way to put myself to sleep" means.)

So in this college-radio single from 1985, we've got an antiquated image of speeding modernity, the engineer trying desperately to bring his homeland into the modern age. But the conductor knows better. "Take a break, Driver 8," he says. "We can reach our destination, but it's still a ways away." Perhaps he means that the future is decades away chronologically, or (more likely, in my opinion) he means that it's a world away spiritually, psychologically. The new world, the world that Driver 8 tries so hard to create, is of a wholly different character--it is the world so despised by Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and all the other Southern Agrarians. It is a world of airplanes, of country clubs and high finance, of a Charlotte that might as well be Boston. It is what I term the "New New South, and it is a place wholly inhospitable to the age of the locomotive. Driver 8, in helping to create this world, plants the seeds of his own destruction, and in this he is another figure of the Old South, which after all created the New South to stay alive and ended up dying.

I wonder, then, when the New New South (and the homogeneous superstructure around it in the rest of the country) will destroy itself and make way for whatever comes next (for good or for evil). I wonder, in fact, if the recent Wall Street collapse isn't evidence of that. And I wonder if the Old South laughed when the railroads died the way the Southern neo-Luddites I know are chuckling under their breath about AIG and Lehman Brothers.

Good morning, America. How are you?

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet: Plato and the American Renaissance (Pt. 1)

James Kibler, who teaches my Southern Literature course, has assigned William Gilmore Simms' Poetry and the Practical, a forgotten treatise by a nearly forgotten poet. When Simms is remembered at all, it's as a rabidly pro-slavery ideologue and the author of The Sword and the Distaff, one of the first novels written in response to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Yet Simms was a true antebellum Renaissance man, a trial lawyer and state congressman who wrote more than two thousand poems in the W.C. Bryant mode and many now-forgotten novels that echo Edgar Allan Poe (who once called Simms America's greatest novelist). I have not read these novels, so I can't agree or disagree with Poe, but Poetry and the Practical is at the very least an interesting and original argument.

Kibler himself wrote the introduction to the book, and in it and in class he spends a good deal of time arguing for Simms' philosophical affinities with Poe. He overstates his case, in my opinion. Poe, after all, famously says in "The Philosophy of Composition" that "Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem," rejecting moral readings and anticipating Oscar Wilde, the decadents, and their off-quoted "art for art's sake." But Simms wrests Poe's work away from its author's intentions: "Their [poets'] instincts . . . peculiar to their gifts, have always made them, more or less willingly, so many moral teachers." No, Simms sounds less like Poe and more like another "P"--Plato, whom I've written about so often that even I am sick of him. (Maybe this will be the last time he comes up. Probably not.)

I've been kicking around the subject of this post for a good long time, and Simms merely provides me with an excuse to finally write it up. The bulk of Poetry and the Practical is a Sidney-esque defense of art--he actually takes the difficult position that the poet is the most practical of all men. Plato, of course, is at the very best ambivalent about art; his theory of forms will not allow him to praise mimetic art, that copy of a copy of a copy, and poetry, built as it is on emotion rather than logic, disturbs him. He excludes the poet from his Republic on the grounds that he
can use words and phrases as a medium to paint a picture of any craftsman, though he knows nothing except how to represent him, and the metre and rhythm and music will persuade people who are as ignorant as he is . . . Strip [poetry] of its poetic colouring, reduce it to plain prose, and I think you know how little it amounts to. (Republic 601A-B)
And so it baffled me for a long time as to why Simms' fellow Romantics so revere Plato. Emerson is typical in his praise: "Plato is philosophy, and philosophy, Plato,--at once the glory and the shame of mankind, since neither Saxon nor Roman have availed to add any idea to his categories." Emerson (and the other Romantics) classes Plato as a philosopher rather than a poet, but he also calls him "almost literature" and a "great artist," and he clearly believes the Greek to be on his side. But Emerson, Coleridge, and the rest would be left shivering outside the gates of the Republic. What gives?

Well, for one thing, Plato isn't as consistent in his critique/rejection of art as we might assume him to be. Socrates loves Homer--who for Greeks of the era was not only the composer of the national epic but also a religious figure. He quotes the blind sage more than he quotes anyone else, and when he does so, it's so he can appeal to his authority. Further, Plato dedicates an entire dialogue to something resembling literary criticism. In the dialogue bearing his name, we meet Ion, a rhapsode. Trevor J. Saunders explains in his introduction to the Penguin edition:
What did rhapsodes do? Gorgeously attired, they recited the works of Homer and other poets, apparently in some sort of chant, and usually without the musical accompaniment employed by earlier Homeric singers. Their performances were dramatic: they threw themselves into the part of whatever character Homer was depicting, and acted his scenes.
Additionally, their acting has an interpretative/critical element to it. Socrates classes the rhapsode with the artist, and here, at least, that's a compliment; after all, the rhapsode ends up as an intermediary between the Author and the Reader, and as such he operates by a "divine power" (533D).

Now: Saunders claims a dialogic consistency here--that is, he says that Plato uses the rhapsode to criticize the poet, rather than using the poet to define the rhapsode:
The question it poses is: "Do poets know what they are talking about?" Socrates, clearly thinks, the answer is "no"; indeed, he believes that poets are ignorant fellows who can write poetry only in a state of madness.
Strictly speaking, Saunders is correct. Socrates says that poetic inspiration can come only when the poet goes out of his head. But Saunders' tone is all wrong. I know nothing about him, but I suspect from his error that he approaches this subject through the Enlightenment, the period in which the fool stopped being holy and started being insane. (There's more to it than that, of course, and you can get it all from Foucault's seminal Madness and Civilization.) As late as the Renaissance, madness was all right; as Shakespeare says, "Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, / Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends" (A Midsummer Night's Dream V.i.4-6).

Shakespeare, I'll allege, is of one mind with Plato, at least in the Ion. The evidence too difficult to explain away, try as Trevor Saunders might:
All good epic poets recite all that splendid poetry not by virtue of a skill, but in a state of inspiration and possession. The same is true of good lyric poets as well: just as Corybantic worshippers dance without being in control of their senses, so too it's when they are not in control of their senses that the lyric poets compose those fine lyric poems. But once launched into their rhythm and musical mode, they catch a Bacchic frenzy: they are possessed, just like Bacchic women, who when possessed and out of their senses draw milk and honey from rivers--exactly what the souls of the lyric poets do, as they say themselves . . . A poet, you see, is a light thing, and winged and holy, and cannot compose before he gets inspiration and loses control of his senses and his reason has deserted him. No man, so long as he keeps that, can prophesy or compose . . . the god relieves them of their reason, and uses them as his ministers, just as he uses soothsayers and divine prophets--so that we who listen to them may realize that it is not they who say such supremely valuable things as they do, who have not reason in them, but that it is the god himself who speaks, and addresses us through them. (533E-534D)
So it's not poetry that Plato objects to; it's uninspired poetry, poetry written by man instead of by the gods.

With this in mind, the Romantic affection for Plato comes shining through, in ways I will explain in the next edition.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Robinson Jeffers Takes Us All On

I hate the planet. Call me antinomian, but I've finally had it with society's recent shift toward self-righteous environmentalism, and when I heard the neologism "green collar"--meaning someone who works in the alternative energy business--I knew I'd had it. Of course, it was around this time that I was made to read Robinson Jeffers, environmentalist poet extraordinaire. To make matters worse, I had to read him for a close reading class, which means I had to read him over and over again until his words fall apart.

I don't like camping or hiking or sitting quietly under a tree in the woods or any other activity one might associate with environmentalists. All my positive feelings about so-called "nature" involve civilization, whether it's driving at night with the wind flying through my car windows or sitting on my back porch reading in the cool fall air. But I don't understand the people who risk their lives to save some tree or another, and I don't believe that Mother Earth is crying. I don't mind the Alaskan oil pipeline, and I'd love to build what the Athens hippie contingent has termed a "bioterror lab." (In reality, it's a nuclear power plant that could drastically lower our dependence on that foreign oil that's kind of a big deal right now.) I think that whatever members of the unwashed masses came up with the Davis Toad Tunnel need to be imprisoned.

And yet I like Jeffers. His poem "Salmon Fishing" has the potential to annoy me the way that most environmentalist writing does, but any disgust I might have felt is for the most part subsumed by the sheer beauty of his expression. He seems determined not to use any language of civilization, and the poem opens a scene freed of humanity:
The days shorten, the south blows wide for showers now,
The south wind shouts to the rivers,
The rivers open their mouths and the salt salmon
Race up into the freshet. (ll. 1-4)
Humanity does not encroach upon this scene--or at least Jeffers would have us believe that it doesn't--but the natural world still manages to choose and to perform actions. (Derrida, I suspect, would call all this into question--can a river have a mouth without having the word mouth?) And the scene is absent of humanity except for Jeffers' loud voice echoing through the canyon, describing it for us.

But I am not sure Jeffers' presence in a humanity-free world qualifies as contradiction in his mind. All through the poem, he sets himself up as an intermediary between humanity and nature, as a sort of environmental Christ. Thus, he includes images of suffering and of sacrifice:
In Christmas month against the smoulder and menace
Of a long angry sundown,
Red ash of the dark solstice, you see the anglers,
Pitiful, cruel, primeval,
Like the priests of the people who built Stonehenge. (ll. 5-9)
Jeffers somehow floats above this scene and inhabits the two sides of it. He feels nature's pain and is privy to its nonhuman activity, and yet he speaks human language--he translates, in fact, nature's illiterate groanings into human language.

The fishermen, meanwhile, are Druid priests at winter solstice, a mystical and holy time at Stonehenge. It's important that Jeffers doesn't hate humanity--his distaste for homo sapiens is tempered by his pity; he sounds like the Christ of "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." This sacrifice of the salmon may or may not be necessary, but it allows the fishermen to lose their humanity (a good thing here) and to become "primeval," like the rest of the scene.

After all, Jeffers was not, as far as I can tell, a vegetarian. Humans have to eat, and if the anglers weren't standing in the stream pulling the salmon out of it, brown bears would almost certainly be there in their place--and no one blames them. My first reading of "Salmon Fishing" demonized the fishermen, cruelly pulling innocent fish out of their homes, but Jeffers' language suggests I was wrong; he says that they are
Dark silent forms, performing
Remote solemnities in the red shallows
Of the river's mouth at the year's turn,
Drawing landward their live bullion, the bloody mouths
And scales full of the sunset. (ll. 10-14)
There's something sinister about the fishermen, perhaps, and Jeffers certainly does not make the mistake supermarket city boys like me make--that of divorcing the dead fish from the live one--but these fishermen are not wicked, and the death of the fish, made holy by the sunset in their gills, allows humanity to continue to live on.

I say that Jeffers makes himself into one of the fish because of his ability to see their future; they "Twitch on the rocks, no more to wander at will / The wild Pacific pasture nor wanton and spawning / Race up into fresh water" (ll. 15-17). The narrative voice, tied to nature at the opening of the poem, dies on the same hook as the fish he describes.

Jeffers' poetry trafficks in this ambiguity. We see it just as strongly in his poem "Haunted Country":
Here the human past is dim and feeble and alien to us
Our ghosts draw from the crowded future.
Fixed as the past how could it fail to drop weird shadows
And make strange murmurs about twilight? (ll. 1-4)
Jeffers appears to criticize the modern city-dweller for his lack of connection to the past--symbolized here by nature--which he must then fill with his dystopian expectations of the future. But the grammar's out of joint here. There's no punctuation mark between the first and second lines, which means that we're missing either a period there (making the first two lines distinct) or the words the and that (as in "alien to the us / That our ghosts draw"). The split is significant, the difference between a monolithic cultural identity and one that dissociates when faced with problems.

Likewise, "Fixed as the past" has no mechanical markers, and the clause could mean at least two things: (a) The past and the future are equally dependent (or equally static); and (b) The future is a square peg that modern man attempts to "fix as the past," that is, to shove into a round hole. This ambiguity, however, subverts Jeffers' presumed point. It becomes clear that it is not clear that modern man has no connection to the past or that that is a bad thing. Holding onto the future, Jeffers may suggest, is as dependable as holding onto the past. We may be faced with another set of salmon fishers here, people who we assume Jeffers dislikes while he actually admires them.

This ambiguity allows Jeffers to transcend the didactic and transitory nature of most environmentalist writers--he seems to hear every point of view and to treat them all equally. His conclusions are perhaps not conclusions at all, but further questions. He is, in other words, a first-rate Modernist poet, up there with Eliot and Frost and whoever else you include at the top.